'Moving Pictures': Haven't We Seen This All Before?

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 4, 2007

How do we learn to see? Does art simply mimic the human eye, or have audiences, over time, accommodated their vision to the artist's eye? And why, when a new technology and artistic medium emerges, does it so often simply conform to the notions of composition, perspective and framing that have gone before?

Such are the questions raised (and not always answered) by "Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film," an exhibit of paintings, photographs, posters and films that recently opened at the Phillips Collection. The diverting -- if blinkered -- exhibition, which features 60 of the earliest films to be made in the United States and Europe, invites viewers to consider how, if art doesn't necessarily repeat itself throughout history, it certainly rhymes, advancing similar formal dictates, iconographic subjects and archetypal themes regardless of the medium.

The show also tacitly reminds visitors how emerging media and the new forms of cultural expression they foment are less novel than they might first appear. Seen in the context of "Moving Pictures," YouTube is simply the latest iteration of a long line of artistic begats that reaches back centuries.

In this modest, often beguiling, ultimately vexing exhibition, which takes up 11 small galleries on the Phillips's top two floors, the connections between 19th-century painting and the beginnings of cinema are made immediately clear. The show opens, appropriately enough, with one of Thomas Edison's most famous -- and at the time of its release, notorious -- films, "May Irwin Kiss" (1896), which depicts a dapper, mustachioed gentleman planting a prim buss on the cheek of an equally proper lady; the scene was taken from a touring play at the time, "The Widow Jones," but evokes a timeless piece of iconography, reminding us that the fundamental things applied long before Dooley Wilson sang about them two generations later in "Casablanca."

But the most dramatic examples of how painting informed the earliest films come in successive galleries, where the conversation between the two mediums is writ monumental. Curated by Nancy Mowll Mathews, senior curator of 19th- and 20th-century art at Williams College Museum of Art, where the exhibition originated, "Moving Pictures" is at its most arresting when the gestures are biggest: when, for example, "Niagara, Horseshoe Falls," a 1896 film by French pioneers the Lumière brothers, grandly speaks across the room to the equally magisterial -- and compositionally identical -- "Niagara Falls" painted in 1878 by William Morris Hunt.

Spanning the years 1880 to 1910 and organized thematically to encompass the cardinal subjects of the day -- nature, the human body (both in portraiture and motion), the arts and urbanization -- "Moving Pictures" has been meticulously edited to demonstrate the connections between art forms. Thus we experience such delightful, even startling, synchronies as John Sloan's "In the Wake of the Ferry II" (1907) and Edison's "S.S. 'Coptic' Lying To" (1898). And we understand up close the line that connects the painting and sculpture of Frederic Remington, the motion studies of Eadweard Muybridge and Edwin S. Porter's groundbreaking "Great Train Robbery" (which was shown at the Phillips last week).

But as uncanny as viewers may find such coincidences, and as enjoyable as it is to see film and sleek flat-screen technology integrated so gracefully and tastefully into the Phillips's exhibition space, "Moving Pictures" too often comes across as the programming equivalent of a one-liner, an idea that, albeit supported with lots of visually pleasing examples, doesn't necessarily break much new ground. How surprising is it, after all, that practitioners of a new medium, many of them former artists and photographers, would use the same framing and compositional values as the art forms they were trained in? And how surprising that, while being captivated -- sometimes even terrified -- by film's heightened realism, audiences would find such continuity reassuring?

Then there's the organizational principle behind "Moving Pictures" itself, the assumption that the conversation between painting and film was the only conversation. But at the turn of the century, film was part of the much larger cultural project -- involving not just cinema but painting, poetry, theater and literature -- to create a heroic and healing American story in the wake of a ruinous Civil War. When G.W. "Billy" Bitzer -- who would later film D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation" -- made the short film "Spirit of '76" in 1905, was it best understood as an iteration of the chromolithograph "Yankee Doodle 1776" (which itself was an iteration of Archibald Willard's iconic 1875 painting "The Spirit of '76"), or as an example of the larger zeitgeist, wherein an emerging art form was being pressed into service of inscribing a national mythology?

In focusing on so narrow a time period, "Moving Pictures" depicts film as an essentially conservative medium that preserved existing forms and assumptions, rather than breaking them apart. Audiences are introduced to some of the germinal films of the cinematic canon -- "May Irwin Kiss," the Lumières' "Feeding the Baby," the hand-tinted "Danse Serpentine" and "Coming of the Train" are the elements of cinematic style -- but in the context of such on-the-nose comparisons to (relatively minor) paintings, they're rendered inert forms of imitation or reenactment.

Of course, the medium would eventually become a means of storytelling and, just as powerfully, of abstraction, psychological exploration and the refracted expression of consciousness itself. In the narrow temporal and conceptual purview of "Moving Pictures," cinema is both bold and unsure, constantly seeking aesthetic cues and validation from the past. As the YouTube generation finds itself transfixed by its own reflection on miniaturized screens, the Phillips has provided us with a genteel reminder that a kiss was still a kiss is still a kiss.

Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film, through May 20 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Call 202-387-2151 or visit http://www.phillipscollection.org.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company